Reasons For Optimism For Libertarianism

Libertarian views of Barack Obama have varied widely, largely because the wide variety of people who use this label. I noted during the election that many libertarians were backing Obama, while other libertarians echo the view of him from the far right. David Boez takes a pretty optimistic view of the direction we are heading. He see a positive trend for civil liberties, and discusses issues such as legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage in depth. He concludes:

The “shift to the left” that we seem to observe on economic policy is depressing to libertarians. But that’s mostly crisis-driven. When the results of more spending, more taxes, more regulation, and more money creation begin to be visible, we may see the kind of reaction that led to Proposition 13 and the election of Ronald Reagan at the end of the 1970s. Meanwhile, this cultural “shift to the left” is far more encouraging. And don’t forget, at 90 days into the Obama administration, Americans preferred smaller government to “more active government” by 66 to 25 percent.

Boez is also taking a far more realistic viewpoint than is coming from many economic conservatives in realizing that current economic policy is in response to a crisis and does not reflect the overall direction the country is heading in. On the other hand, the crisis has ensured that opposing all regulation will not be taken very seriously as it was during the Reagan years. We now even have supporters of the Chicago School such as Richard Posner (author of Capitalism in Crisis) arguing that deregulation of the banking industry went too far.

The apparent contradiction between supporting smaller government and supporting the actions of the Obama administration has other possible explanations beyond response to a crisis. This is partially due to the difference between small government and limited government. When many libertarians and conservatives talk of small government they are literally talking of the size of government. They are looking at how much money the government spends, how many people it employees, how many rules are on the books, and how many government agencies we have.

For many other people the important issue is not the actual size but how government impacts upon their lives. To many voters a liberal version of limited government is far preferable to conservative small government which is more intrusive in our lives. Many people do not see a government, regardless of size, which restricts civil liberties, interferes with reproductive rights, criminalizes marijuana, intervenes in marriage decisions, intervenes in end of life decisions, and embraces the social policies of the religious right as being small at all.

Even when considering the types of issues conservatives are more likely to consider when speaking of small government, the views of many voters are not entirely clear. People will say in general they want small government, but are also unwilling to give up many of the services provided by government. Most voters do not want to give up Medicare or Social Security and most voters recognize a need for changes in our health care system, even if it results in higher taxes.

Some of the statements of support for small government come from listening to the rhetoric of the right. We constantly hear that there are government programs which spend lots of money, employ lots of people, and do nothing for us in return. Naturally everyone will agree that we should get rid of such government programs. Now we just have to find them. While there is certainly some waste which can be eliminated, it is doubtful that any truly wasteful programs which can be identified will amount to a very large percentage of the actual size of government.

Libertarians need to decide what really matters. If the actual number of government employees and government agencies is the key issue in their lives they are not going to be happy with the direction the country is going in. However, if they look at the fundamental questions of whether people are becoming more or less free in running their own lives, and free from interference from government, then Boez is right that there are real reasons for optimism.


  1. 1
    Fritz says:

    I am tentatively pleased with some of the small moves Obama has made in some civil liberties — like at least toning down the rhetoric in the drug war.

    I think Boaz is being way too optimistic on economic matters, though.  We are heading not only toward more regulation (and that regulation is not just covering reasonable things like commercial banks but also clamping down on the ability of venture capitalists to fund startups without government permission), but outright government ownership of concerns.  And as we have seen with all entitlements, once this process starts, it is almost impossible to reverse.  Look at the return of bloated farm subsidies for instructive examples.

  2. 2
    Jim Z. says:

    My mind can certainly be changed with sound arguments, but right now my impression of libertarianism is that it’s a cop-out from dealing with the real world.  Why try to set some sort of permanent mantra by arguing between “limited government” and “small government?”  There are times when we need one, both, or neither, and in different arenas.  get real.

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